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1 May 2024

What is Starmerism?

The three big ideas powering the next Labour government.

By George Eaton

What does Keir Starmer believe in? Four years after he became Labour leader, there is an increasing understanding of Starmer the man: his complicated childhood and early family life, his personal decency, his restless ambition, his ruthlessness. But “Starmerism” remains more elusive. Does the concept amount to anything at all?

During his 2020 Labour leadership campaign, when he positioned himself on the soft left of the party, Starmer outlined ten pledges based on “the moral case for socialism”, most of which have since been abandoned or revised (an act of pragmatism or betrayal, depending on political preference). His wider past can appear little more illuminating.

As Jon Cruddas, the Labour MP for Dagenham, noted in his recent history of the party, A Century of Labour: “There are few contributions to help reveal an essential political identity and little in the way of an intellectual paper trail.”

Starmer entered parliament in 2015 aged 52; he was never a member of what George Osborne refers to as “the guild” of professional politicians and special advisers. He was a human rights lawyer and served as director of public prosecutions from 2008 to 2013. His time running the Crown Prosecution Service gave him a more practical focus than a pamphleteering backbencher. “He almost has an allergy to ideology, he wants to be the prime minister who rolls his sleeves up and gets stuff done,” Carys Roberts, the executive director of the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), told me.

Unlike Ed Miliband, who as Labour leader gave speeches on themes such as “responsible capitalism” and “predistribution”, Starmer avoids abstract language and concepts. He does not approach politics as if it were an Oxford PPE seminar. He has said that “Starmerism is as much about the ‘how’ as the ‘what’” – by which he means transforming how the state operates.

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There is an instructive parallel here with the former Conservative MP turned podcaster Rory Stewart, who also worked outside of Westminster – as a diplomat and a governor in postwar Iraq – before entering parliament. In his recent memoir Politics on the Edge, Stewart writes that “it was at the operational level that so many of the worst problems in British government lay. Not in the ‘what’ but the ‘how’.”

It is often said, even by those who have worked closely with him, that Starmer has no politics. Some have identified Starmerism as a purely technocratic project, a perception reinforced by the Labour leader’s appointment of the Whitehall veteran Sue Gray as his chief of staff. Others characterise it as crude Blairism: pro-business, deferential to markets, irrevocably hostile to the left. The truth is that Starmerism is more intriguing and distinctive.

Through my conversations with shadow cabinet ministers, past and present Labour aides and think-tank leaders, three intellectual pillars emerge: one focused on ethics (the common good), one on economics (“securonomics”), and one on geopolitics (“progressive realism”).

But do they amount to a coherent vision?

1. The common good

“The two sources of what I believe to be right and good are family and work,” Keir Starmer said in his 2021 Labour conference speech. He spoke of how his toolmaker father gave him a “deep respect for the dignity of work”. Starmer does not usually reference philosophers in speeches, but his words recalled those of Michael Sandel, the Harvard philosopher, whom Starmer interviewed for a 2014 BBC Radio 4 programme, Can Time Run Out for Justice?.

In his 2020 book The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?, Sandel explores the idea of the “dignity of work”, arguing that it has the potential to “morally invigorate our public discourse, and move us beyond the polarised politics that four decades of market faith and meritocratic hubris have bequeathed”.

Some, such as Daniel Chandler, the author of the recent book Free and Equal, have argued that the philosophy of John Rawls should shape Starmerism. In Rawls’s 1971 work A Theory of Justice, the late US philosopher imagined a just society devised by individuals from behind a “veil of ignorance” – not knowing their own class, wealth, talents or any other personal characteristics. In these conditions, they would, he concluded, adopt what he called “the difference principle”: social and economic inequalities are only justified if they are of “the greatest benefit to the least advantaged”.

The idea has had a long intellectual afterlife, but it is far too abstract for Starmerism.

“Keir’s politics are lived politics, in my experience of him; they come from his experience, firstly, of his family – many intellectuals deny how important that is,” Claire Ainsley, Starmer’s former director of policy, told me.

In contrast to Rawls, Sandel emphasised those “loyalties and convictions” that are “inseparable from understanding ourselves as the particular persons we are – as members of this family or community or nation or people”.

There is a similarly communitarian quality to Starmerism, not least in its attitude towards class. While New Labour heralded a post-class era – “I want to make you all middle class,” declared Tony Blair in 1999 – Starmer speaks of working-class pride, and shame. He has lamented the failure of the previous Labour government to “eradicate the snobbery that looks down on vocational education” and to “drain the well of disrespect that this creates”.

When I recently interviewed Sandel, he praised Starmer as part of a wave of centre-left leaders who have broken with the post-class politics of the “third way”, the doctrine championed by Tony Blair and Bill Clinton in the late 1990s.

“Olaf Scholz in Germany, Joe Biden in the United States and Keir Starmer in Britain are all emphasising the dignity of work,” said Sandel. “Not only this, they all seem to be aware of the fact that centre-left leaders in recent decades have lost credibility with working people to a striking degree.

“And this is connected to an attempt to address the resentment and sense of grievance of working people who feel elites look down on them… Scholz, Biden and Starmer seem keenly aware that what has alienated working-class voters, apart from inequality and wage stagnation, is the lack of respect, the lack of social recognition and esteem from well-educated, credentialled elites.”

Jon Cruddas, who has previously been critical of Starmer, writing that he “often seems detached from his own party”, also speaks of a decisive shift in Labour’s outlook under Starmer.

“They’ve decided to do something which is very radical, which is to re-establish Labour as the authentic party of working-class people,” Cruddas told me. “That sounds self-evident, but it’s not self-evident because over the last 30 years, both on the Labour left and right, there have been elements that say the working class is on the wrong side of history; it’s disappearing and technological upheaval means that it offers diminishing returns as a political project.

“Starmer seems to be quite confidently embracing the working class as the political agent that Labour needs.”

Starmerism is distinct from both the liberal individualism of the free-market right and the post-work utopianism of the radical left (which has advocated universal basic income as an alternative to the traditional goal of full employment). It derives political meaning from enduring institutions and values. “Keir understands what belonging means in terms of family, nation and community,” said Ainsley, the author of the New Working Class.

There are tentative echoes here of Blue Labour, the political faction that came to prominence in the aftermath of the party’s 2010 general election defeat. Starmer, its founder Maurice Glasman told me, was “at the gates of the kingdom but had yet to enter”.

Sandel praised Starmer’s communitarian ethos: “The centre left has made a mistake in recent decades by allowing the right to have a monopoly on the language of family, community and patriotism. These need not be conservative ideas. The centre left should present its own vision of what it means to honour them, to reconnect with its own traditions of solidarity, mutual obligation and care.”

When Starmer, a devoted football fan, speaks of the values encouraged by the game – teamwork, sportsmanship, community – you are reminded of the great Scottish Liverpool manager Bill Shankly’s declaration that “the socialism I believe in is everyone working for each other, everyone having a share of the rewards. It’s the way I see football, the way I see life.” But how do these ethics translate into economics?

2. Securonomics

“The era of big government is over,” declared Bill Clinton in his 1996 State of the Union address. Over the years that followed, this belief was accepted as an incontrovertible truth by Western parties of both the centre left and the centre right. The state would still fund essential public services, but it would no longer direct the economy in any meaningful sense.

“I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation,” Tony Blair said in his speech to the 2005 Labour Party conference. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer.”

As an economic project, Starmerism unambiguously rejects such assumptions. It views the state as an agent that shapes markets rather than simply fixing them.

Rachel Reeves’ recent 8,000-word Mais Lecture represented the fullest articulation yet of this position. It was principally written by the shadow chancellor’s 30-year-old economic adviser Nick Garland, who is studying for a PhD in “The Labour Party, the British left, and the idea of community, 1968-1994” at University College, Oxford University, and is an editor of the social democratic journal Renewal. Described by Cruddas as “an important moment in Labour history”, Reeves’ Mais lecture fleshed out her doctrine of “securonomics” (first explored in the New Statesman in a long profile of the shadow chancellor in June 2023).

In an era of wage stagnation, climate crisis and great-power conflict, securonomics asserts that economic security and resilience depend on active government. “It is no longer enough, if it ever was, for the state to simply get out of the way, to leave markets to their own devices,” Reeves said.

Her ideas did not emerge in a vacuum: she cited the influence of the Harvard political economist Dani Rodrik, the foremost critic of “hyperglobalisation”, and the US Treasury secretary Janet Yellen, who has defined the Biden administration’s approach as “modern supply-side economics”.

When some on the left hear the latter term they flinch. Supply-side economics – which focuses on expanding the production of goods and services, as opposed to merely the demand for them – has long been associated with Thatcherite tax cuts and deregulation.

But it also invokes a distinctive Labour tradition. When Harold Wilson – Starmer’s favourite Labour leader – vowed in 1963 to harness the “white heat” of the scientific revolution to modernise British industry, he was promoting a supply-side agenda. Neil Kinnock similarly championed “supply-side socialism” as Labour leader, promoting policies such as a National Investment Bank to support innovative firms.

The strongest critique of Reeves’ approach is that it amounts to Bidenomics without the money. While the US president’s Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 included $375bn of subsidies for green industries, Labour is now committed to only £23.7bn of investment across the next parliament (as opposed to its initial pledge of £28bn a year).

But Reeves and Starmer have at least recognised the centrality of growth to social democracy: redistribution is more politically palatable when the economy is expanding and higher productivity is the only sustainable means of boosting wages. As such, they are “pro-business”, but not in the unqualified sense that some on the left suggest. Business is viewed as a social partner rather than a master to be appeased or an adversary to be confronted.  

For Starmer, higher wages are the economic expression of the “dignity of work”. In private, he speaks of people wanting more money in their “front pocket” – a decent wage – rather than merely more in their “back pocket” (through tax credits and other benefits).

He is personally committed to Labour’s “New Deal for Working People”, championed by the party’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner. It commits Labour to abolishing zero-hour contracts, ending “fire and rehire”, expanding collective bargaining and granting workers’ basic rights, such as sick pay, parental leave and protection against unfair dismissal, from the first day of employment.

When I spoke to Sandel he – unprompted – cited protections for gig-economy workers and the introduction of collective bargaining for care workers as a means of giving concrete expression to the “dignity of work”.

Before the 1997 general election, Blair boasted that his government would “leave British law the most restrictive on trade unions in the Western world”. Starmer, by contrast, has vowed to “level up workers’ rights in a way that has not been attempted for decades”.

Rodrik, whose prescient book Has Globalization Gone Too Far? was published in 1997, told me this was “an important reorientation”.

“One of the things that happened with centre-left parties after the 1980s is that they became increasingly disengaged from the working class, sometimes even more enthusiastic than centre-right parties in embracing hyperglobalisation and liberalisation.”

Enhanced workers’ rights are not the only dividing line with New Labour. Public ownership was such a taboo for Blair and Gordon Brown that the latter hesitated to nationalise Northern Rock at the start of what became a global financial crisis in 2007. Starmer’s Labour, however, has vowed to establish Great British Energy, a publicly owned clean-energy company, to create a National Wealth Fund to invest in green industries, and to renationalise the railways. (An agenda to which Miliband has been pivotal.)

In his travels around the UK, Starmer has been struck by the pride felt by clean-energy workers, which for him recalled that of the miners who once “powered a nation”. Deploying a football metaphor, as he often does, he has spoken in private of such workers “pulling on the England shirt” when they go to work: their job has become a kind of patriotic duty.

Patriotic social democracy – the brand of politics that guided Starmer’s centre-left counterparts to victory in the United States, Germany and Australia – is another shorthand for Starmerism. But now more than ever, politics does not end at the border.

3. Progressive realism

On the afternoon of 20 January, amid the splendour of Guildhall – the oldest surviving secular building in the City of London – David Lammy delivered the keynote address at the Fabian Society conference. The shadow foreign secretary’s speech mostly attracted media attention because of repeated interruptions by pro-Palestinian protesters. But it was worthy of greater consideration.

Lammy used the speech – influenced by his new political adviser Ben Judah (the author of This Is London and This Is Europe) – to unveil what he considered to be a new doctrine: “progressive realism”. He vowed to combine the best of two former Labour foreign secretaries: Ernest Bevin – the realist who served as Clement Attlee’s foreign secretary and co-founded Nato – and Robin Cook, the Blair-era idealist who promoted foreign policy with an “ethical dimension” (and later resigned from the cabinet over the 2003 Iraq War).

What defines Lammy’s approach?

“Realism is a foreign policy philosophy that takes the world as it is, not as you would wish it to be,” he told me. “It acknowledges that the world is a difficult, tough and often tragic place that forces you towards hard choices.” (Barack Obama, Lammy’s friend of two decades, spoke often of “tragedy”, or tragic realism, in the twilight of his presidency.)

Lammy continued: “Realism is very alive to the balance of power as a question and to the relative weight of international players. But typically its practitioners have only used it to accumulate power for power’s sake, like Henry Kissinger, for example.

“Where progressive realism is different is that you’re using that philosophy in order to put your advantage behind progressive causes such as the international rule of law and climate diplomacy.”

Such an approach echoes that of Starmer himself: a human rights lawyer who pursued progressive ends and came to see the value of realist means. From 2003 to 2007, he served as a human rights adviser to the Northern Ireland Policing Board, the body founded to oversee the Police Service of Northern Ireland (the replacement for the sectarian Royal Ulster Constabulary).

In an interview with the New Statesman in 2020, Starmer recalled how this experience changed his perspective on the state. “That really exposed me, for five years, to working on the inside of an organisation… Some of the things I thought that needed to change in police services we achieved more quickly than we achieved in strategic litigation… I came better to understand how you can change by being inside and getting the trust of people.”

Labour’s foreign policy today reflects a similar realism. Rather than haranguing Republicans, Lammy has engaged with them in preparation for a potential Trump presidency. As my colleague Andrew Marr recently reported, the shadow foreign secretary has met the former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, the Hillbilly Elegy author and Ohio senator JD Vance (a potential vice-president), and Trump’s former national security adviser Robert O’Brien.

This hard-headed diplomacy is mirrored in Labour’s approach to China, the Middle East and Europe. “Ernest Bevin didn’t need to cooperate with the Soviet Union on climate change or AI,” Lammy told me. “But in the 21st century, when it comes to China, being a realist means that you’ve got to include these progressive causes in your diplomatic approach and to seek to work where possible – and it may not always be possible – with China on them.”

In the Middle East, Lammy has vowed to “shake the hands we need for peace” – he has learned from the trajectory of Biden who pledged to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” in 2019 only to bump fists with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman three years later. When Israel was recently attacked by Iran, it was not only Jordan but, reportedly, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that helped defend it. If peace in the Middle East is ever to be achieved, the Gulf states will be central to it.

In Europe, Labour would pursue a new EU-UK defence and security pact, one with a far wider remit than Nato, which could encompass agreements on migration, climate change and critical raw materials. The emphasis on the supply of goods denotes an awareness of how the boundaries between foreign and domestic policy have been blurred. Securonomics must be pursued abroad rather than merely at home.

“Take the supply chain of an electric vehicle,” Lammy told me. “Where’s the cobalt coming from? Where’s the lithium? How is it being traded? What kind of carbon taxes is it subject to? What markets is it going to? What standards and regulations is it operating under? Every single step of the way, there’s a job for the foreign secretary.

“Progressive realism is the expression of Keir and Rachel’s politics abroad. It is the strategic compass to help navigate the world in order to achieve the renewal of the UK.”

Lammy, once a standard-bearer for Remain, emphasised that he did not regard a new European security pact as a back door to EU membership. “It doesn’t mean that we want to rejoin the EU, the single market or the customs union – the constitutional question is closed,” he told me.

Critics of progressive realism argue that it seeks to evade a choice that is ultimately inescapable: should foreign policy be shaped by values or interests? Its progressivism is either too unrealistic or its realism is too unprogressive. But after years of boosterism from Conservative foreign secretaries, Lammy’s approach is at least an attempt to grapple with the UK’s relative decline.

“We don’t appreciate how the world has changed since 1997 in Britain,” he told me. “In 1997, the UK still administered a major Chinese city as a colony [Hong Kong]; the British economy was larger than the Indian and Chinese economies combined.

“Being a foreign secretary in the 21st century is as much about telling a story about the world to Britain as a story about Britain to the world.”

The essay question for British politics is no longer whether Starmerism exists, but whether it will work. Should it win power, Labour will have one of the worst inheritances of any British government: a stagnant economy, collapsing public services, and the highest national debt as a share of GDP since the early 1960s. At every turn it will face daunting spending pressures: the NHS, education, defence and the green energy transition. In opposition, it is possible to elide such dilemmas, but to govern is to choose.

Across the West, Labour’s centre-left sister parties are becalmed: Biden is in danger of losing the presidency to Donald Trump; Scholz’s Social Democrats are polling behind the hard-right Alternative for Germany and Anthony Albanese’s Australian Labor may be evicted from office after just one term.

Labour’s own history is replete with examples of the party being overwhelmed as it struggles to reconcile principle and power: Ramsay MacDonald and the 1931 split over austerity; Jim Callaghan and the 1976 IMF bailout; Gordon Brown and the 2008 financial crisis. Much of the “decade of national renewal” promised by Keir Starmer depends on higher economic growth. How will he and Rachel Reeves respond if growth disappoints? Will they grow more radical in office or less?

The answers to these questions are, for now, unknowable. But to claim Starmerism is a vacuous project – concerned only with winning – or that it is simply a New Labour tribute act is no longer credible. It will succeed or fail on its own terms.

This appears in the 3-9 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman magazine

[See also: The battle for Keir Starmer’s soul]

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This article appears in the 01 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Labour’s Forward March